The light and dark origins of Lucia
Words about words
M. Michael Brady
The name Lucia is most known as that of an Italian martyr, Santa Lucia (often but not always “St. Lucy” in English), who died at the hand of the Romans in Syracuse, Sicily, on Dec. 13, 304, now her feast day. In the European languages, Lucia comes from the Latin word lucifer, a compound of two words, lux (“light,” the genitive of lucis), and ferre (“to bring”). Lucifer appears in Greek mythology as “the one who brings daybreak,” which led to its association with the planet Venus, the morning star. The annual Dec. 13 celebration of Saint Lucia’s feast day is prominent in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden (further reading), where its first mention in print was in 1218. In Swedish, Lucia also is spelled Lusse or Lussi.
Lucifer also has another meaning. In Verse 12 of the Book of Isaiah of the Latin translation of the Old Testament, Lucifer is said to be the fallen angel, synonymous with Satan. So in Scandinavian folklore, the words Lucifer, Lusse, and Lussi also came to be associated with events quite different from those associated with the pure, pious Saint Lucia. One of the more prominent ones was the Oskoreia (further reading), the Scandinavian version of the Wild Hunt, also called Julereia (literally “Christmas ride”) because it is said to take place around the winter solstice, 12 days before Christmas. In 1700, with the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar, the date of the winter solstice changed from the 13th to the 21st of December. That didn’t change Dec. 13 as the day of the feast of Santa Lucia, but it did set the celebration of it apart from the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.
In folklore, that must have been convenient for Lucia, who is said to have often taken part in Oskoreia or similar happenings. She would come each year during the preparations for Christmas, to sample the Christmas beer, wield her cake slicer, monitor the griddle cake baking in the cookhouse, and ensure that threshing and spinning were properly done, sometimes screaming admonishments down chimneys to people lax in their provisioning for the holiday. She was known to be particularly active on lussinatt (Lucia Night), so much so that there are several paragraphs on it in the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia entry on Lucia Day (further reading).
• Lucia, Project Runeberg online edition of Svensk etymologisk ordbok (Swedish Etymological Dictionary): runeberg.org/svetym/0512.html (in Swedish).
• Lussinatt section in article on Luciadagen (Lucia Day), Store norske leksikon (Great Norwegian Encyclopedia), online edition: snl.no/Luciadagen (in Norwegian).
• “A victory for light in winter’s dark gloom,” The Norwegian American, Dec. 1, 2017: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/victory-light-winters-dark-gloom.
• “Oskoreia, Norway’s Wild Hunt is a darker side of Jul,” The Norwegian American, Dec. 26, 2014: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/oskoreia.
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.
This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.